Saturday, January 03, 2015

Silver Linings in Punjab's Communal Cloud

Talking of communal harmony, dark clouds are hovering over Punjab. Here's a story that may be the silver lining.

Masihi Sansar (Christian World) is a Punjabi fortnightly published from Jalandhar in Punjab. A humble newspaper with a shoestring budget is run by a committed editor Freddi Joseph. Besides other things, the paper is committed to highlight the contribution the foreign missionaries made in nation building in India. It has instituted awards in the memory of William Carey, a British Baptist missionary; John C. Lowrie, an American Presbyterian missionary; and Dr Imam-ud-Din Shahbaz, an Indian pastor and teacher. The idea behind these awards is rather simple: Mr Joseph says that Indian Christians are very good at finding faults with each other, but we want to change the culture. We want to start honouring people for what they have done for the community. So for the last nine years they have been organizing a function on the 2nd of October every year where they felicitate fellow Christians for their positive contribution towards the uplift of the community.

In 2013, I was invited by them to present a paper on William Carey in their award ceremony in a church in Jalandhar Cantt. This was my first visit to any of their functions and I did not know what to expect. But I was intrigued nonetheless when I found out that that year they have chosen three Sikhs, Pargat Singh Gaga, Parkash Singh, Gurmel Singh and two Hindus, Rakesh Kumar Singla and Sohan Lal Kaushik for William Carey and John C. Lowrie awards.  There was a powerful story behind it.

 ***
Pargat Singh told me, "They [the VHP and BD] said to us, 'Look at those pictures; see how they [the Muslims] killed your gurus and your forefathers' and we replied 'Let them kill in a picture; no killing is happening in reality anymore, so you better stop instigating us Sikhs'." This pragmatic yet profound answer was what prevented another Muzaffarnagar in Malerkotla.
***

On 10 April 2007, the members of the Bajrang Dal (BD) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), two militant Hindu organizations, had attacked a rather nondescript, small church in Lehragaga, in district Sangrur in southern Punjab. They converted the church into a gurudwara, by installing the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib. You could read the news report here and a press release by Christians here. The local police apparently was not too keen to uphold justice. It was these  community leaders from among the Sikhs and the two Hindu journalists who threw their weight behind the bewildered Christians. They were the ones who made sure that Guru Granth Sahib was taken away and the church property duly restored. These individuals took on the might of some very powerful leaders in Punjab and even dragged them to court, and fought for justice, and I was told, without little or no support from the Christian church. They even suffered at the hands of the powerful Hindutva lobby. A dhaba that Sardar Pargat Singh ran had to be closed down due to pressure of these fanatical forces, I was told.

Six years after the incident, this small Christian organization had decided to honour these valiant men.

Before the function, as we had our aloo-parathas and tea, I talked to some of them. And I came across another intriguing story.

S. Pargat Singh told me that they had just returned from Malerkotla. The only Muslim-majority city in Punjab was simmering with communal tension because just a day or two ago a Hindu boy had been brutally burnt alive (news report here). The militant Hindu organizations wanted to stoke communal fire and create an anti-Muslim, or rather a pro-Hindutva environment. This was obviously a part of the pattern—the strategy of initiating communal riots to polarize voters for the upcoming general election (May 2014) had been "successfully" implemented in Muzaffarnagar in UP in August–September 2013. Pargat Singh and his friends had been camping in Malerkotla, and it seems they had been instrumental in diffusing the situation. One thing that Pargat Singh told me amazed me. Muslims and Sikhs have had a very bitter past. As the Mughal Empire was declining, Sikhs were getting organized as a political power in the Punjab, and that often brought the two factions in conflict. It was a bloody period, where Sikh gurus and their families suffered greatly and trod the path of martyrdom. Those stories are part of folklore now. The miscreants from the Hindutva brigade wanted to use this gory past to instigate Sikhs to kill Muslims today. Pargat Singh told me, "They [the VHP and BD] said to us, 'Look at those pictures; see how they [the Muslims] killed your gurus and your forefathers' and we replied 'Let them kill in the picture; no killing is happening in reality anymore, so you better stop instigating us Sikhs'." This pragmatic yet profound answer was what prevented another Muzaffarnagar in Malerkotla.

These gentlemen deserve all the honour and more! They restore our faith in the openness and generosity of spirit for which Punjab is known all over.

(Google "Sikh martyrs" if you wish to see some of the pictures referred to in the conversation between members of the Hindutva organizations and Pargat Singh)

AWARDED: (L to R) Gurmel Singh, Parkash Singh, Pargat Singh Gaga, Rakesh Kumar Singla, Sohan Lal Kaushik, with Freddi Joseph




7 comments:

mesjay said...

A heartening incident. The guys really deserved the honour.

Anonymous said...

Great inspiring stories. I think our society need more people like these gentlemen who not only fight against injustice but also maintain communal harmony. Great work Masihi Sansar for honouring them .

Sushant Das said...

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” Perhaps Edmund Burke said this, but the truth of this statement is evident not only in the bigoted behaviour in our country but also in Syria and Iraq.
Thank you for highlighting that "Good men" are doing something, May we find further ways of encouraging them!!

Ashish Alexander said...

Yes, heartening but the clouds are still hovering. The evil communal forces are not done. And, thanks for the comment :-)

Ashish Alexander said...

Indeed, we need more people like them. We need more stories like these. The trouble is the dark forces of evil are advancing at much greater pace.

Ashish Alexander said...

And may we also find a ways of creating an open society!

Kavita Das said...

One feels such a sense of hope after hearing about the extraordinary deeds and incredible courage of these men and how they have made such a positive difference. In this lies a lesson for us all....the true heroes are ordinary men who are willing to stand for what is right and whose openness of heart transcends the confines of petty boundaries that are man-made. May the good Lord bless them and their families.